Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Mak­ing of the Mod­ern Mid­dle East

Michael B. Oren
  • Review
By – November 7, 2011
Based upon new­ly acces­si­ble archival records, Michael Oren recounts the diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary his­to­ry of the 1967 Six- Day War. His research con­cern­ing the nature and objec­tives of Israel’s ene­mies and the real­i­ties of U.S.-Israeli rela­tions are sober­ing, while his nar­ra­tive of Israel’s vic­to­ry is both riv­et­ing and hero­ic. The book pro­vides much need­ed his­tor­i­cal con­text for the con­tem­po­rary Mid­dle East cri­sis, which long pre­dat­ed the col­lapse of the Oslo Process and the out­break of the Al-Aqsa Intifa­da.

Oren spares no effort to detail the ori­gins of the war and par­tic­u­lar­ly why Israel felt com­pelled, con­trary to the coun­sel of the Unit­ed States and France, to fire the first shot. The block­ade of Eilat, the expul­sion of Unit­ed Nations troops, and the remil­i­ta­riza­tion of the Sinai Penin­su­la were de fac­to acts of war man­dat­ing an Israeli response. The tri­par­tite alliance of Egypt, Jor­dan, and Syr­ia con­front­ed Israel with a vir­tu­al stran­gle­hold. Per­haps most telling­ly, Israeli intel­li­gence had ascer­tained that Nass­er was with­in hours of a first strike, which was abort­ed only by a last minute Sovi­et inter­ven­tion. 

The unsung hero of this nar­ra­tive is the much­ma­ligned Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Levi Eshkol. Wide­ly crit­i­cized for lack of lead­er­ship, Eshkol defied his gen­er­als by insist­ing upon restraint, which in turn engen­dered broad inter­na­tion­al sup­port. More­over, Eshkol cor­rect­ly pre­dict­ed the costs of Israeli occu­pa­tion after the war, not­ing in par­tic­u­lar that Gaza would amount to a bone stuck in our throats”. 

Par­tic­u­lar­ly sur­pris­ing and in pro­nounced con­trast with con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, was the sus­tained dovish­ness of the Nation­al Reli­gious Par­ty — not only dur­ing the debate over whether to ini­ti­ate hos­til­i­ties but also in sub­se­quent deci­sions to con­quer Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. In the imme­di­ate after­math of the war, the Nation­al Reli­gious Par­ty expressed its will­ing­ness to exchange ter­ri­to­ry for mean­ing­ful peace. NRP cab­i­net min­is­ters Moshe Shapi­ra and Zer­ah Wahrhaftig were per­haps the clos­est allies of For­eign Min­is­ter Abba Eban in coun­sel­ing restraint. Shapi­ra antic­i­pat­ed even the return of Jerusalem in the con­text of a post­war peace. By con­trast, Oren notes how future Chief Rab­bi Shlo­mo Goren urged that the IDF destroy the mosques on the Tem­ple Mount so as to pave the way for build­ing the Third Tem­ple. Wise­ly, Eshkol insist­ed that no harm occur to reli­gious holy sites — an objec­tive sad­ly at odds with Jor­dan­ian treat­ment of Jew­ish ceme­ter­ies and syn­a­gogues in Jerusalem over the pre­vi­ous 19 years. 

Per­haps of great­est con­tem­po­rary rel­e­vance is Oren’s treat­ment of the Unit­ed States and its rela­tion­ship with Israel. Almost from the begin­ning, there were two sides to Amer­i­can pol­i­cy— a resolve to help Israel cou­pled with an insis­tence that Israel main­tain the moral high ground by refrain­ing from ini­ti­at­ing hos­til­i­ties. Pres­i­dent John­son and Sec­re­tary of State Rusk in par­tic­u­lar were both dis­ap­point­ed in Israel’s fail­ure to wait an addi­tion­al two weeks before resort­ing to mil­i­tary force. Nonethe­less, Amer­i­ca stood by Israel diplo­mat­i­cal­ly. Oren cred­its in par­tic­u­lar the Jews in Johnson’s cor­ner — Eugene and Walt Ros­tow, Ambas­sador Arthur Gold­berg, and Jus­tice Abe For­t­as, for their advo­ca­cy of Israel’s cause and for their can­dor with Israel con­cern­ing the lim­i­ta­tions placed upon the U.S. gov­ern­ment giv­en wide­spread domes­tic anti-Viet­nam War sen­ti­ment. The will­ing­ness to call upon the Jew­ish com­mit­ments of Jews with­in the U.S. admin­is­tra­tion is a remark­able tes­ti­mo­ny to the crit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of Jew­ish polit­i­cal influ­ence and pow­er and tes­ti­fies to the cen­tral role of Amer­i­can Jew­ry in form­ing strate­gic alliances between the Unit­ed States and Israel. Thus the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Lib­er­ty on the fourth day of the war was qui­et­ly set aside rather than be per­mit­ted to dis­rupt U.S.-Israeli rela­tions as some antic­i­pat­ed or even sug­gest­ed. Oren claims that the attack on the Lib­er­ty was entire­ly a bat­tle­field acci­dent. Notwith­stand­ing Oren’s evi­dence, which is con­sid­er­able, the dis­pute still rages con­cern­ing the Lib­er­ty and Israeli inten­tions. To his dying day John­son him­self believed that the assault was a pre­med­i­tat­ed Israeli action against an intel­li­gence ves­sel of the Unit­ed States. 

The endur­ing val­ue in Oren’s book lies both in its his­tor­i­cal recon­struc­tion and in its unstat­ed but crit­i­cal impli­ca­tions for present day diplo­ma­cy. Most impor­tant­ly, he demon­strates pre­cise­ly what Israel is up against. Time and again he reminds us that Israel’s ene­mies hoped to destroy the Jew­ish State. Jor­dan­ian sol­diers were giv­en orders to kill all civil­ians in their path. Syr­ia was guilty of domes­tic atroc­i­ties— includ­ing the use of tor­ture. No soon­er was the Six-Day War com­plet­ed than anti-Jew­ish attacks and burn­ings of syn­a­gogues occurred in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Moroc­co. In Tripoli, a pogrom claimed the lives of 18 Jews, and the remain­der were placed in deten­tion camps. In Egypt 800 Jews, includ­ing both Chief Rab­bis, were incar­cer­at­ed. Sev­en thou­sand Jews were expelled from Syr­ia and Iraq. Most impor­tant­ly, among Arab gov­ern­ments only Tunisia and Moroc­co chose to con­demn these atroc­i­ties. 

Under­ly­ing the now-failed Oslo process lay the assump­tion that Arab lead­er­ship had changed and was now rec­on­ciled to the real­i­ty of a Jew­ish state. At min­i­mum, Oren’s book cau­tions us to know thy ene­my”. At max­i­mum, he chal­lenges the would-be peace mak­ers of today to ask whether the pas­sions and hatred of Israel that gave rise to the 1967 War have tru­ly been laid to rest or whether Oslo rep­re­sent­ed only a fur­ther attempt to gain via diplo­ma­cy what was not real­ized via force.
Steven Bayme serves as Direc­tor, Dorothy and Julius Kop­pel­man Insti­tute on Amer­i­can Jew­ish-Israeli Rela­tions, for the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Committee.

Discussion Questions